Learnings from a MOOC

By Jan Schwartz

In fall 2008, I participated in a semester long MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — through the University of Manitoba. The name of the course was Connectivism and Connected Knowledge; Stephen Downes and George Seimens facilitated it. Of the over 2000 enrollees from all over the world, I think fewer than 30 took it for credit. It was one of the most fascinating educational experiences I’ve ever had, and by the way it was free. For those interested, there is a short explanatory slide deck.

I admit to being primarily a lurker in the early part of this course because I had no idea what connectivism and connected knowledge meant, but by the end of the course I had a pretty good idea. A lurker in this instance is similar to an auditor in a face-to-face class; she is there to soak it all up, but not really to participate. There were published readings each week, but most of the learning came from other participants. We posted on Twitter, blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, and Moodle, which was the “home” platform for the course. There were even some discussions happening in Second Life. (Yes, eventually I started to participate.) In addition there was a once a week synchronous discussion on Elluminate.

This reflection is not about MOOC or the course itself, but what I learned about the combined roles of the student, the teacher, and the technology in education, particularly adult education (the education field in which I work). To be clear about the definition of technology that I’m using, I’ll go with Harry Keller’s definition of technology in his ECTJ  article, Technology Literacy: The Key to Education Reform (8.22.10): “Let’s take technology, for this discussion, to mean technology in the classroom and require that it have an important computer component. Interactive white boards and iPads will fall into this range as will all sorts of computer software.” I would extend that definition to include technology in an online “classroom” as well.

In my opinion, the teacher’s primary role in the online environment is to facilitate discussion among the students. He or she truly becomes the “guide on the side,” and in my experience, I’ve learned that many teachers don’t know how to do this well. They are accustomed to the “sage on the stage” mode of teaching through lectures, in class discussions, and tests, over which they have total control. In the MOOC, the facilitators aggregated the conversations on a daily basis via a mass email, took a few really good posts (in their opinion), and advanced the conversation by asking more questions and pointing the discussions in relevant directions. Their choice of good posts included both the pro and the con of topics of connectivism and connected learning. Periodically the participants would see a post by the teachers responding to a student’s post — always on Moodle since that was the basic platform for the course.

In essence the participants chose the online tool through which we each wanted to communicate and learn. We were given a hashtag if we wanted to blog, tweet, or create a new wiki so that everyone could do a search and we could find each other on the internet. I learned to use some new tools by watching, reading, and participating in some of the discussions. For example, the use of wikis is much more clear to me now because I was allowed to experiment. Sometimes it bugged me that someone edited my work, but in the end I did learn from it, and I can see how it would be an interesting learning experience for an online group.

Is there an ideal way to ensure that technology is an aid to learning rather than a blockade? I believe there is. The MOOC course created a facilitated microcosm of an educational technology world. If I had questions about the technology or the course, there were avenues to ask them, including the synchronous Elluminate sessions and email. There were opportunities to post an original idea and to post responses to others’ ideas. We could use words, graphics — Wordle or a mind map for example — or videos to get our thoughts and points across. The teachers were well versed in the use of all of these tools.

What is an example of a less than ideal way to use technology in education? The use of PowerPoint is a good illustration of how technology can detract from learning.

When you throw technology into the classroom situation, I think it is safe to say we are generally talking about PowerPoint. I remember back in the early ’90s when people thought PowerPoint was the hot new technology to spice up lectures and other presentations. Today I am a member of a LinkedIn Group whose aim is to end “death by PowerPoint” — twenty years later people still do not know how to use that tool. There is the issue of cognitive load, which is not clearly understood by those who use PowerPoint because they seem to use it as a way of keeping track of where they are in their lecture — very teacher centric. It is also used as an easy way to provide handouts — very teacher centric. The only PowerPoint presentations I recall seeing in the MOOC were introductory in nature, very short, and included minimal use of text.

To be clear, it is not the fault of PowerPoint that people tend to fall asleep or do other things such as text their neighbors during a lecture, but it is the fault of the teacher who did not learn how to use PowerPoint, or any other technological tool, to enhance learning — rather than to make teaching easier. This is true about online teaching in general. Just because teachers have been teaching for 10 or 20 or 30 years does not mean they can do it well online. Facilitating a discussion when it is not possible to see slumping bodies, glazed or rolling eyes, or even alert and affirming nods of heads is challenging. I know there are colleges and universities that are doing faculty training on the use of online technology (for example Penn State World College). In my field there is zilch training, yet people are teaching online anyway and then complain about retention or outcomes.

In summary, the role of the student is to review the information they already have, learn new information from as many sources as feasible, evaluate that information, and then connect the dots. And technology is provided as a tool that helps teachers help learners enhance the learning experience.

14 Responses

  1. Why protected? Nice post.

  2. Flsantos, good question. It was still under review. Protection has been removed. -js

  3. Ha. Ok. I was curious about it, because I participated on that MOOC too.

  4. I signed up for Plenk2010 too. Looking forward to participating more this time, For more info: http://connect.downes.ca/

  5. Jan and flsantos, I became aware of the MOOC after the fact and must admit that I haven’t done more than a cursory and random review of some of the practices or ideas that I’ve stumbled upon in pursuit of other information. The fragments I’ve seen are all very positive about the experience.

    Jan’s article fills in some of the missing pieces. My take is that the purpose of the MOOC was to learn by doing — to learn about theories of connectivism and social constructivism as they apply to Web 2.0 by actually using social media to set up networks of connected and interactive nodes (participants) to construct a dynamic, shared, operational model of the two terms.

    This reminds of open systems theory where, when applied to learning, the individual receives constant input from his/her environment, processes it, and constructs a model of reality. And because the process is recursive, the output is tested in the environment and returns as input (feedback) for further processing in a never-ending cycle of varying steady states.

    However, when the combined social constructivist-connectivist template is superimposed on the open systems model, we see not one but a whole bunch of open systems connected to one another via social networks in the shared virtual environment.

    The result is individuals who openly share their perceptions to come up with a communal vision, and this shared view is always in a state of flux as new information enters the mix.

    If this take is in the ballpark, then my guess is that the mother of all MOOCs is the internet itself, which isn’t limited to a finite set of nodes and connections.

    And learning how to connect to the available and appropriate nodes (people as well as other sources) in the internet to continually reconstruct one’s sense of reality is what education is ultimately about. That is, learning how to learn.

    At no time in our history have we, as human beings, been so connected. The immediate thought is the notion of one people, one world, one reality.

    Interesting theory. -JS

    • Jim,

      I like the way your mind works. The Mother of All MOOC’s would be a MOAMOOC. Sounds like Hawaiian for internet.

      This is probably a bit too far out there, but it might at least generate a laugh or two. From a distance we must be forming something of what “Star-trek” would have called BORG. More connections grow dependencies and dependencies tend to build specialization. I have often wondered if there could be any connection between the apparent increase in autism in children and the one world one reality theory of the ultimate MOOCs. Are we all somehow being assimilated? Certainly hyperconnectiveness is a sign of the times as more states are passing anti driving while under the influence of texting laws. Txt-anon classes and Texting Rehab units are just around the corner.

      Learning to learn is fairly easy in our Just-in-time, Just-enough, Just-for-me world, but learning to know what you know and know when you are right, a form of self assessment and self built confidence, may be harder. Schools are by one definition a safe place for failure. The world classroom is often not so forgiving.

      I remember getting a question from one of my on-line scuba students who was working a simple nitrogen saturation problem using dive tables. “So did I get it right?” My answer was “You tell me, it is your life that will depend on it, not mine”. After all I was not going to be around to be telling them they got their dive time/depth correct. Somehow I knew the funny look was there, even though I could not see it on-line (trying to work on that problem). When the next pool lab came around the student said, Yes I got it right, I know I did! I replied super, now you know what you know.

      I often wonder why we have to waste so much money testing students when most of the time all we have to do is ask them if they have learned or not and we get a much more accurate measure. Ok time and money, but then I wake up and remember how much time and money is already involved the business of testing students. It just goes to a different effort.

      An interesting question could be… is it possible to ever be “Too” connected? New phones have two-way video conferencing. Some funny looks might be better left un-seen.


    • @JS This is a very interesting input about the theories behind MOOCs. Liked the open systems theory applied to learning.
      But I think that the mother off all MOOCs is the human mind, internet and other things is just tools to potentiating hour capabilities to transform information to knowledge by learning.

  6. In December 2006, I participated in the online “Accessibility of eLearning” course (archives in http://scope.bccampus.ca/mod/forum/view.php?id=417) organised by Catherine Fichten and Jennison Asuncion.

    It was also a Canadian initiative with worldwide participation, but was t a MOOC, considering that the venue was a traditional Moodle? Yes if going by flsantos’ definition, which I agree with, perhaps particularly because I’m a digital immigrant.

    And one thing that stunted me as digital immigrant was the loads great links people strew all over the place, even though there was in theory an “online resources” discussion board for that. So I made an accessibility_of_elearning tag in del.icio.us to gather them. I was very happy to see that it survived when del.icio.us became deicious.com – see http://www.delicious.com/noimedia/accessibility_of_elearning.

    What I’m trying to drive at is that if digital immigrants are to be enticed to participate in that kind of initiatives, you’d better have a hub. Maybe 2 or 3 hubs, but not more, which they can easily return to. Especially if the immigrants represent a strong proportion of the participants.

    I’m presently participating in an Italian project called “Pinocchio 2010”, which aims to train teachers in the use of Web 2.0 tech. One of the two organizers, Riccardo Rivarola, started by firing heaps of “Pinocchio 2010” pages – on Google Docs mainly, because Google Docs pages look like a normal text editor teachers already know how to use, but also on Picasa and other Web 2.0 apps.

    At first, no one dared edit or add content to these pages. Now a few participants are starting to do so. But maybe I’ll start tagging all that material “pinocchio2010” – this time with Diigo bookmarking – too, to create such a hub.

    BTW, in the http://www.delicious.com/noimedia/accessibility_of_elearning tag already mentioned, the /noimedia/ part was also a hub – that of a now finished project we called “Noi Media” after “We Media” (http://www.hypergene.net/wemedia/weblog.php), which also aimed at inciting teachers to use Web 2.0 apps.

    As nobody else was using “noimedia” (1), we were able to create “noimedia” accounts in heaps of these Web 2.0 applications ;-)

    As Patrick Topaloff used to sing: “Tout doucement le matin / et pas trop vite le soir: / N’allez pas me bousculer / Si vous voulez que je vous aime” (very slowly in the morning and not too fast in the evening: don’t hurry me if you want me to love you). It also applies to making people sharing our likes.

    (1) Well, actually, someone in the UK registered “noimedia.com” in 2007, but the http://www.noimedia.com site has been saying “coming soon” for 3 years now…

  7. I agree with Jim that the mother of all MOOCs is the internet and all the tools that are housed in the internet. At least it fits the MOO part—Massive, Open and Online. And it could fit Course too if we are open to the learning via the internet and not just using it to find the nearest Starbucks.

    The MOOC2008 course was used to present the educational theory of connectivism. Downes says that the basic thesis of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Basically, Downes and Seimens said what they wanted to cover, added the communication tools (technology) and then the students took over.

    At the outset of the course I did feel some of the frustration that Claude alludes to in wanting to capture the resources, some of which I knew I would want to refer to again, and others that I didn’t have time to read, but wanted to in the future. People were all over the map—literally. At the same time the amount of information put out there was very exciting and stimulating.

    As I said earlier I signed up for the next course and I feel much more prepared. For example, I will use Evernote to keep things organized from the outset.

    @William, I recently hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon where being connected, in a technological sense, was not possible. It took the exhaustion of hiking back out to make me forget (for a couple of hours anyway) about how many emails I would face when I got home. I wasn’t connected but I felt the withdrawal, much to my dismay!

  8. […] recently wrote about my experience in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Connectivism and Connected Knowledge held during the fall semester […]

  9. MOOC supplies a free platform for anyone to learn using the internet.

  10. […] Many of my educational technology peers might have heard the term MOOC tossed around before. For those of you who are just hearing this acronym, let me further explain. MOOC = Massive Open Online Course. It is exactly as the title describes. Here is a further description from Jan Schwartz‘s article – Learnings from a MOOC: […]

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